In The News

In Burma: One Month Later

June 4, 2008

Rangoon, Burma – One month has passed since Cyclone Nargis hit Rangoon and the Delta region of Burma. Electricity is back on at the house where I am staying in Rangoon, though the phone-line is still down. Monsoon season has begun and it rains heavily almost every day ” dark and angry storms that threaten to drown the city in a daily deluge as murky waters rise up from the overburdened sewage systems.

Solid information about the situation in the Delta area is still frustratingly hard to come by due to restricted access. At UN cluster meetings, agencies and NGOs struggle to put together a comprehensive overview of which communities in the affected areas have been reached and where the gaps in aid coverage are. Behind the misinformation and rumours that are circulating, there is a fear that the situation may be even worse than anyone has yet conceived.

A few days ago, I met a 45-year-old fisherman who comes from a small Delta town south of the hard-hit Laputta area. He travelled to Rangoon last week with a cousin who needed extensive surgery after being battered by bricks and other debris during the cyclone. The fisherman sat very still during our conversation and often lapsed into long silences. He lost his wife and two young daughters to the storm, and has not been able to find their bodies. In his village of 2,000 people only about 175 survived.

When the cyclone made landfall in the Burmese Delta on 2 May, the fisherman had been away from his home collecting crabs. He took shelter at the house of a merchant in another village and returned home the next morning, as soon as the winds had died down enough to make travel possible. When he arrived at his village, there was nothing he could recognise among the piles of wooden planks and fallen tree trunks. “There were dead bodies everywhere,” he says, looking blankly down at his hands. “In the canal that leads to the village, we had to force our boat through the bodies. The bodies were all around the village ” in the water, on the roads, and across the paddy fields ”

The surviving villagers gathered together and constructed a makeshift shelter. They tried to clean what little rice stock that remained. They sliced meat from the dead cows and pigs they found. They drank from fallen coconuts. The fisherman says his village has not yet received any kind of aid. Some of the villagers travelled to a larger town on the boat he had been able to salvage and collected supplies. Here in Rangoon, he has been gathering donations from friends and relatives. In a couple of days, he will return to his village. But what, I asked, is he going back to?

As the aid community tries to collate information on how to re-establish fisheries and farms, this man says he can not yet think about what he will do next. Before the storm, he had a fairly prosperous fishing operation and employed up to 15 workers. They were all killed in the storm, along with their families. “Everything is gone,” he says. “There is nothing left.”

Meanwhile, despite some improvements in access for international aid organisations, there are reports that trucks carrying supplies down to the Delta on behalf of private donors are being impounded. I have also heard stories about local authorities forcing cyclone refugees out of the school and monastery buildings where they had sought temporary shelter and moving them back to their destroyed villages. Burmese donors who are allowed to travel down to the Delta return with photographs of roads lined with people begging for food. Tension seems to be rising: Just a couple of days ago I heard that a labourer unloading a truckload of donations was stabbed by an angry mob hungry for more supplies.

Each morning in Rangoon I wake up to the sound of crows squawking wildly in the garden. As so many trees were felled by the cyclone, they have nowhere to settle. They flit restlessly around the cloudy skies, perching uncertainly on the flimsy and battered branches of the few remaining trees. When I go out to feed them the remains of my breakfast they swarm around me forming a panicky cloud of black feathers and snapping beaks.

Special to In Asia, by an on-the-ground contributor in Burma to The Asia Foundation.

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